Intangible Assets, Know What You Don’t Know and What You Need To Know!

Michael D. Moberly    March 13, 2014    ‘A long form blog where attention span really matters’!

Admittedly, the title of Michael Roberto’s book “Know What You Don’t Know, How Great Leaders Prevent Problems, Before They Happen”, may appear to some, at least initially, as having virtually nothing to do with intangible assets.  I respectfully beg to differ!

There are numerous facets of Dr. Roberto’s book which, for me, merge well with any business – management team decision-making processes for putting a company’s intangible assets to work insofar developing and exploiting them to create new  – additional sources of value, revenue, competitive advantage, etc.

But, before we get too far, let’s not overlook an important economic fact – business reality, which is, 80+% of most company’s value, sources of revenue, and ‘building blocks’ for growth, profitability, and sustainability today lie in or directly evolve from intangible assets!

So, for example, Chapter 1 of Roberto’s book is relevantly titled “from problem solving to problem finding”.  It commences with, what I believe, is a very apropos quote from G.K. Chesterton, and English author and theologian, which I slightly paraphrase here, i.e., “it isn’t that management teams can’t see the solution, rather it’s that they often can’t see the problem”.  The problem not seen, in my view, resides in overlooking and/or dismissing intangible assets as comprising the real sources of most company’s value, revenue, and competitive advantage.

Roberto makes numerous other, equally introspective points throughout his book which I translate as being relevant to my, and other intangible asset strategists’ objective, which is for intangible assets to become routine discussion – action items on c-suite and management team agendas.  Another example Roberto conveys, which is the effective theme of his book, lies in the necessity to move ‘from problem solving to problem finding’.  That is, for a substantial percentage of companies globally, the intangible assets their employees and business practices routinely produce frequently come to be embedded in most every business function, operation, and transaction.

However, for various reasons, many of which have been addressed here previously, company’s intangibles remain unrecognized or, at least, not exploited to the level possible, even though most business processes and/or transactions are routinely and substantially underwritten by intangible assets. So, for companies in which intangibles remain unrecognized or under-utilized as contributors to value, sources of revenue, and profitability, this should constitute in any management teams’ thinking, significant ‘business problem’ that warrants management teams  collective efforts to find and solve!

In the increasingly intangible asset rooted global economies and business transaction environments, recognizing how management teams can effectively and efficiently find and solve problems, merely by recognizing, developing, and exploiting (their) intangible assets, particularly those related to sustaining – enhancing profitability, market share, competitive advantages, value, revenue sources, reputation, brand, etc.,  is a strong example of moving ‘from problem solving to problem finding’.

Management teams that continue to disregard and dismiss the contributory value of their intangible assets, while it may not be ‘the’ problem, it is certainly ‘a’ problem’ And, its resolution does not require pouring over extraordinary amounts of information nor the extensive use of expensive resources or personnel time to effectively achieve.

Again, as readers know, one, time honored starting point for solving most any problem is by recognizing a problem exists, i.e., ‘finding the correct problem that warrants resolution’. From my experience, an example of finding the not a problem is seldom realized through a single seminar, conference presentation, or published article authored by a subject matter expert.  Rather ‘problem finding’ is rooted, in my view, through introspection, which unfortunately, in the go fast, go hard, go global context which many executives and management teams have assumed, they argue leaves little time for.

Extracting ideas from a respectfully non-descript book which Roberto has authored versus the airport bookstore business books which are consistently framed in a ‘ten easy and quick steps to…’, represents a real and viable strategy for remedying this particular problem, that is management teams ‘finding and solving the problem’ through unlocking their intangible assets by adding, if you like, an anthropological and ethnographical approach to one’s repertoire of managerial expertise.

For example, an ethnographer would observe and identify a firms’ producers – developers of intangible assets from a ‘shop floor’ perspective, i.e., in their natural settings, wherever that may be.  In other words, ‘finding the problem’ means avoiding merely asking employees how things are going, or relying on survey data or focus groups as the dominant sources of insight (problem finding).  Instead, management teams should be obliged to actually observe what employees do, i.e., their tasks,  processes performed, and internal – external interactions, etc., in a manner comparable to an anthropologist.  That is, engage and observe how employees, customers, clients, and suppliers, etc., actually behave and interact.

Doing so, leads not only to ‘problem finding’ through recognition and appreciation for the intellectual, structural, and relationship capital (intangible assets) that are woven into each.

Conducting this level of observation through the lens of an anthropologist and/or ethnographer, management teams can become more effective ‘problem identifiers’ with a particular adeptness at distinguishing – analyzing the contributory value of intangibles without the interference of  potentially misleading or over analyzed data that, in turn, can produce biases and preconceptions that may serve to taint what it is to be achieved.

Too, making these observations through an intangible asset lens, management team members are (a.) better positioned to not just identify what and how intangible assets are being used, (b.) if they are being used effectively, and (c.) which, if any, intangible assets need to be developed further or acquired and ultimately integrated to make a company’s processes more effective, efficient, and profitable.

This post was inspired by Michael A. Roberto’s book ‘Know What You Don’t Know…How Great Leaders Prevent Problems Before They Happen’, Wharton School Publishing, 2009.

 Reader comments and inquires are always welcome at 314-440-3593 (St. Louis) or [email protected].


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